Võ Nguyên Giáp: 1911-2013
By Shlomo Maital
Gen. Giap with former Brazilian President Lula
Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp died on Oct. 4. He was 102.
Gen. Giap was a leading commander in two wars: against the French, and against the United States. He commanded Vietnamese forces at the key battle of Dien Bien Phu, against the French, which ended French colonial rule of Vietnam. Giap surprised the French, by hauling howitzers up steep mountainsides, pulled by troops. While primitive, the howitzers were a surprise to the French and proved decisive in the battle – the French had not expected the Vietnamese to have artillery. Giap had his 24 105-mm howitzers dug into the hillside on its forward slope (normally artillery is placed behind the crest of the hill, to hide it), to demoralize the French troops and ensure that they see them. Giap had a series of trenches dug, which encircled the French and gradually enveloped them.
This was not the first time Giap was underestimated. In the battle against the U.S., Giap created the Ho Chi Minh trail, which kept supplies flowing to the Viet Cong in the South, despite American efforts to bomb the trail with B-52’s and interrupt the crucial logistical supplies.
We in the West consistently underestimate the resilience, inventiveness and dogged determination of Asians. The Vietnamese people are physically relatively small; this too is a factor in how Westerners regard them. But I have acquired immense respect for them. Here is a small story that explains why.
At MIT, I had a young Vietnamese student in my summer course, which required a great deal of reading. His English was very poor and he got 50% on a mid-term exam. I tried to console him. But he shook his head and told me, “I know half material, I get 50%; end of course I know all material, I get 100%”. And he did. He simply went without sleep, and got the job done.
What are the odds that a fighting general could engage two great powers in brutal wars, triumph, and die in his bed at the ripe age of 102? Let us have new respect for Asia and its people. They are not to be underestimated, in peace as in war.